Fake monks inspire critic to make film

To make her first film, My Mandala, film critic Elsa Yang (above) had to stop being too harsh on herself. -- PHOTOS: ELSA YANG

To make her first film, My Mandala, film critic Elsa Yang (above) had to stop being too harsh on herself. — PHOTOS: ELSA YANG

Straits Times, BY BOON CHAN MEDIA CORRESPONDENT

As a journalist with The Liberty Times and subsequently as a freelance reviewer, Taiwan’s Elsa Yang used to write about movies and critique them.

But when she was making her first film, My Mandala, she had to learn to turn off that critical voice in her head.

Speaking over the telephone from Taipei, she says: “Creating and critiquing are two different parts of the brain. If I don’t switch off the criticism side, I would be too harsh on myself and not be able to write or film anything.”

But her journalistic background has shaped her film-making in other ways.

Yang, 41, says: “Maybe because I’ve been a reporter, I am more interested in things which have something to do with society. Unlike most writers, I don’t enter completely into a fantasy world.”

My Mandala was inspired by news reports from seven to eight years ago about Tibetan monks appearing in Taiwan, she adds.

“It made me wonder, ‘What if they weren’t really from Tibet?’ and it sparked off thoughts about how fate leads people to different places.”

The film is part of this month’s This (Thus Have I Seen) Buddhist Film Festival. It will be screened on Saturday at 4pm and on Sept 25 at 7.15pm, with a post-screening discussion with Yang on Saturday.

It combines the scandal of fake lamas with stories of drifters. Years after a woman lost her son in a car accident, she continues to grieve and subsequently invites a lama (River Huang) to her home to chant prayers for his soul. Mandala refers to a symbol in Buddhism representing the universe.

Yang, who is married, says the film is not just for Buddhists and adds: “Those of a more religious bent seem to admire it more and the idea of compassion resonated more with them.

“I hope people will watch the film and follow the arc of the characters’ emotions. And afterwards, think about what’s precious in life and living in the now, to cherish those beside you.”

This may be her first film, but she has already won a prestigious Golden Horse Award for Best Original Script for co- writing the drama, Return Ticket (2011).

She says the award helped to open some doors, adding: “As someone who works behind the scenes, nobody recognises my face. But with the award, people are at least willing to hear me out and let me introduce my projects.”

On My Mandala, she served as producer in addition to writing and directing. She says: “Because I had too many concerns and worries, I wasn’t able to act 100 per cent as director. If I make another film, I’d know how to better channel my energy.”

Despite the challenging conditions, she enjoyed film-making: “Working with actors and different creative and technical types to complete a creation is, although tiring, a happy process.”

A pivotal point in the shoot came when she filmed Huang putting on the lama’s robes and it seemed as though he was radiating “fo guang” (Buddha’s light).

Yang muses: “Maybe it’s because Huang, who is not a Buddhist, had read so many sutras for the film. We didn’t even light the scene that day.

“Sometimes, you doubt yourself while filming and I was wondering if I could even do it well. But at that moment, the character came alive and I knew that I had a chance.”

BACKGROUND STORY

Book it

THIS BUDDHIST FILM FESTIVAL 2014

Where: Shaw Theatres Lido

When: Saturday to Sept 27, various times

Admission: $12 a screening from Sistic

Info: Go to www.thisfilmfest.com. Offerings include Anand Ghanhi’s critically acclaimed Ship Of Theseus (2013), Thai director Gunparwitt Phuwadolwisid’s Three Marks Of Existence (2012) and Nepalese director Geshe Thubten Jinpa’s 108 Yaks: A Journey Of Love And Freedom (2012).

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